The United Nations Security Council voted unanimously early this morning on a resolution to send an international peacekeeping force to East Timor, clearing the way for the deployment of the force as early as this weekend.
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said hours earlier that his government is ready to lead a force of 5,000 to 7,000 troops to quell the violence that has engulfed the former Portuguese colony since its people voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia in a U.N.-sponsored referendum on Aug. 30.
"The secretary general [Kofi Annan] has asked Australia to lead a multinational force, and we have agreed to do this," Downer said. "We'll be able to move within a matter of days to the initial deployment."
The resolution leaves many issues unresolved, including the exact size and composition of the force, the fate of some 70,000 refugees in West Timor and the timetable for the withdrawal of Indonesian troops from East Timor. Downer said on Tuesday that some final details remain to be worked out between senior Indonesian and Australian army officers, who began face-to-face talks at the United Nations.
The resolution authorizes the international peacekeepers to use force to "restore peace and security" and to assist with humanitarian relief efforts in East Timor. And it calls on Indonesian authorities to "take immediate and effective measures to ensure the safe return of refugees" to East Timor.
Without naming Indonesia, the resolution also condemns all acts of violence in East Timor and demands that those responsible be brought to justice. On Monday, a delegation from the Security Council returned from Indonesia with a report that soldiers and police officers had participated in atrocities.
"This shows we meant business," said Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock of Britain, which drafted the resolution.
The council's discussion, which stretched from Tuesday night into this morning, followed reports that the Indonesian military and anti-independence militias had attacked and looted the U.N. compound in Dili, forcing the remaining U.N. employees to flee to the Australian consulate for protection.
The United Nations estimates that only 200,000 people, one quarter of East Timor's population, remain in their homes. The rest have been murdered, driven into hiding or forcibly relocated to West Timor and small neighboring islands.
After days of looting, burning and killing, Indonesian President B.J. Habibie capitulated to international pressure and agreed Sunday to invite an international peacekeeping force to the territory.
Another significant obstacle was removed Tuesday when Indonesia agreed to put its troops in East Timor under the command of the international force, saying it would accept an "advisory" or "liaison" function. Indonesia also signaled that it was ready to allow Australia to play a key role in the force, although it stopped short of explicitly agreeing to let Australia lead the mission.
Australia's role is sensitive because it is viewed as a leading proponent of independence for East Timor, a largely Roman Catholic territory that was seized in 1975 by Indonesia, which is mostly Muslim.
But even Indonesian diplomats acknowledged yesterday that Australia's proximity to East Timor and its willingness to commit about 4,500 troops makes it a logical participant in the force.
"The Australians are the party that is the best prepared to send their contribution of troops," said Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas. "We discussed the possibility of when they could come and what other countries would be there. . . . We want them to come as soon as possible."
Several countries--including China, Bahrain and Malaysia--held up a final vote until early in the morning in an effort to gain concessions for Indonesia. Most importantly, China objected to language that would allow the peacekeepers to "use all means necessary"--including force--to "restore peace and security" in East Timor.
But with U.S., British and Dutch diplomats insisting on keeping the council in session throughout the night to close the deal, they finally relented. "I don't think that we have major difficulties," said a senior Chinese official before the final vote. "The U.S. delegation is going to be here all night and so are our colleagues," said Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Annan, meanwhile, is likely to meet today with Alatas and Foreign Minister Jaime Gama of Portugal, which the U.N. considers the legal administrator of East Timor, to seek their formal endorsement of the agreement on an international force, according to diplomats.
Diplomats familiar with the planning said an advance mission of 500 to 600 troops from several countries would be prepared to move into East Timor within 72 hours, clearing the way for a total of 5,000 to 7,000 peacekeepers.
Australia and Malaysia are expected to provide the backbone of the force, but the United States, Britain, New Zealand, Canada, the Philippines and South Korea have agreed to participate.
The Clinton administration has said the U.S. role would be limited to intelligence, communications, logistics and airlift capability--"the oil and the machine," in the words of one U.S. official.
On the last day of his five-day summit to New Zealand, President Clinton called for joint exercises between U.S. forces and those of other nations participating in the peacekeeping force as a way of preparing for the mission.
"There is a great . . . desire to see some Asian countries participating," Alatas said. But he added that "it's up to the United Nations and the contributing countries" to determine the composition of the force.
Downer said Australia would pay attention to Indonesian "sensitivities."
"This will be a genuine multinational force," he said. "It will have a significant number of countries participating in it." The council draft resolution says the initial multinational force will be replaced "as soon as possible" by a formal U.N. peacekeeping force.
Alatas said the Indonesian army would withdraw from East Timor in "a couple of weeks." Jose Ramos Horta, the Nobel laureate and Timorese independence leader, demanded that Indonesia pull out its troops immediately.
"Indonesia must leave," he said. "The security must be entirely, exclusively in the hands of the multinational force." Standing beside Holbrooke, Horta also called on the Security Council to set up a war crimes tribunal for East Timor. And he charged that the Indonesian army has been burning documents containing evidence of Indonesian complicity in war crimes.
Staff writer John F. Harris in New Zealand contributed to this report.
CAPTION: East Timor families crowd aboard an Australian air force plane for flight to Australia. The air force transported 1,500 displaced people and U.N. staff members. Story, Page A22.